More and more people are choosing to decrease or entirely cut out their intake of gluten. The diet, which is intended for people who suffer from Celiac disease, is now being adopted by people without the condition because of perceived health benefits. However, the advantages are unclear.
The gluten protein can be found in foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. For someone with Celiac disease or who has a gluten intolerance it means eliminating pasta, bread, cookies, cereal- the list goes on to include almost every staple in the American diet. “These grain foods are a significant source of carbohydrates and dietary fiber in the diet,” says Aliz Holzmann, registered dietician at The College of New Jersey. “It is not recommended to just eliminate these carbohydrate foods, as carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and the brain’s only source of energy,” says Holzmann. This is why people who need to go gluten-free are recommended to replace those carbs with grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat to maintain an adequate amount of healthy grain in their diet.
Not only people with the disease are opting for the diet. Others who are trying it and swearing it helps them feel better. Research on “non-celiac sensitivity” has yet to yield definitive results; however recent studies in Italy and Australia have found that patients with intestinal problems said they preferred how their body felt on gluten-free diets.
Celiac disease, suffered by 1% of the world’s population, is a condition in which the protein gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines. “When these individuals consume foods containing gluten, they experience gastrointestinal symptoms that may include abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and fatigue,” says Holzmann. “Individuals with gluten allergies may also experience typical allergy symptoms such as itching and in severe cases, anaphylaxis,” she adds.
Celiac disease and other forms of gluten-intolerance have been on the rise over the last few decades. Whether this can be attributed to an increase in cases or an increase in accurate diagnoses is not known.
Wheat is still considered to be a fairly new addition to the human diet, with the introduction of agriculture only about 10,000 years ago. “For the previous 250,000 years, man had evolved without having this very strange protein in his gut,” said Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, in an article for The Week published in April 2013.
Allison Kaplan, a freshman at The College of New Jersey, suffered from stomach aches for her entire life. During her senior year of high school she felt a huge increase in stress, and a huge increase in stomach pain along with it. After months of tests by doctors, it was suggested to Kaplan to go on a gluten free diet. “Within a few weeks, I felt a lot better,” says Kaplan. Her test for celiac disease came back negative, placing her under the gluten sensitive category.
She grew accustomed to having salads and meat a lot more often than she used to. “Maintaining the diet was difficult at first because all I ever ate was pizza, bagels, and pasta, but it was manageable once I got used to it,” she says.
An increasing number of universities across the U.S. have begun to incorporate gluten free options in their dining halls since intolerance has been on the rise. “When I first got to college, I was worried about what I would eat, but there is a gluten free section in the dining hall that has crackers, cookies, and other things too,” says kaplan.
For others, removing gluten from their diets has more to do with eating healthier. “I found that I felt really bloated whenever I ate foods with gluten in them. Once I ate gluten free for a week, and I saw a great difference,” she says Amanda Soler, a junior at The College of New Jersey. She was also inspired to try the diet by a friend who was “super fit and conscious about his health” and who had been gluten free for his entire life.
But experts say that feeling better may be linked to something other than your body without gluten. “Many individuals are choosing to adopt a gluten-free diet because of a perceived health benefit. If an individual experiences an improvement in health by volunteering to consume a gluten-free diet, it is likely because they are eliminating processed grains and incorporating whole grains, as well as making other healthy lifestyle changes, such as more fruits and vegetables, increased exercise, etc.” says Holzmann.
If weight loss is the goal, many dieters ditch gluten hoping it is the answer to their weight loss prayers.
“I would not recommend a gluten-free diet as a means for weight loss,” Holzmann. She advises that the best way to lose weight is to stick to a balanced diet of whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Going gluten-free alone will not guarantee weight loss.
“If gluten-containing foods are replaced by gluten-free foods and the same calorie level is maintained, an individual will not lose weight. Only by burning more calories than your body takes in can one lose weight.” People on gluten free diets often mistakenly attribute weight loss to their avoidance of gluten, when in reality it’s simply due to cutting out desserts and junk food.
Undoubtedly the diet comes at a hefty price: it cuts out almost everything commonly found in supermarkets, basically limiting gluten-free dieters to the costly options available at specialty grocery stores.
These specialty stores are able to provide a variety of gluten-free products, but Holzmann says dieters need to be wary of the labels. Oftentimes the main ingredient used in these products is white rice flour, which is low in fiber. Just as it is important for individuals without gluten-sensitivity to eat whole grains, it is important for those on a gluten-free diet. “These individuals should opt for gluten-free pastas and breads made from whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa in order to meet their daily dietary fiber requirements,” says Holzmann. Gluten free dieters can also safely consume starchy vegetables like beans, corn and potatoes to get adequate fiber and carbohydrates.
After cutting out your beloved beer and pasta, the list of food products to avoid goes on to include anything with food additives like malt flavoring and modified food starch. Even some medication and vitamins use gluten as a binding agent and need to be avoided.
Allison is optimistic about the options available for gluten free dieter. “There are so many gluten free options available that you wouldn’t even expect. There are a lot of restaurants now that serve gluten free pasta or pizza. The meals aren’t as great taste-wise, but I’ve seen a significant improvement just within the past year that I’ve been gluten free, and I’m sure the quality will continue to increase,” she says.
A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for individuals who have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or sensitivity. Holzmann says there is no benefit to a gluten-free diet compared to a diet containing gluten for those who do not have gluten intolerance. “If a gluten-free diet is not implemented properly, it can be a health detriment,” she says.
The moral of the story: if gluten free dieters do their nutrition homework, they may get the appropriate amount of healthy carbs and whole grains while cutting out processed wheat. The benefits would come from a diet of fresh natural foods; not directly as a result of the absense of gluten.
“If being gluten free helps you feel better, it is worth all the challenges,” says Allison.
To see exactly what it entails, view a detailed gluten-free diet guide here.